Clin­ton as com­mu­ni­ca­tor, from Welles­ley to cam­paign

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Jo­ce­lyn Noveck AP Na­tional Writer

NEW YORK >> Hil­lary Clin­ton has said it her­self: She’s not the most nat­u­rally gifted pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tor.

“I am not a nat­u­ral politi­cian, in case you haven’t no­ticed, like my hus­band or Pres­i­dent Obama,” she said in March.

Yet her first pub­lic speech was a star-mak­ing one, land­ing her in a Life mag­a­zine write-up at the ten­der age of 21. She was a se­nior at Welles­ley, the first stu­dent cho­sen to ad­dress a com­mence­ment there. Un­happy with the words of the U.S. sen­a­tor in­vited to speak be­fore her, she par­ried with an un­planned re­buke, be­fore launch­ing into her pre­pared re­marks. It was un­scripted and rather au­da­cious — so au­da­cious, in fact, that the pres­i­dent of Welles­ley felt com­pelled to apol­o­gize to the sen­a­tor.

“Cour­tesy is not one of the stronger virtues of the young,” wrote Ruth Adams, in a let­ter re­cently un­earthed by The Wash­ing­ton Post. “Scor­ing de­bater’s points seems, on oc­ca­sion, to have higher stand­ing.”

Nearly 50 years later, Clin­ton is fac­ing the most im­por­tant de­bates of her life as she squares off against Don­ald Trump be­gin­ning Mon­day — three high-stakes con­tests that could set the mo­men­tum for the re­main­der of the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

What kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tor has she be­come in those years since Welles­ley, the last 30 or so in the pub­lic eye? That first speech is sig­nif­i­cant, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, of the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia’s An­nen­berg Pub­lic Pol­icy Cen­ter, be­cause it shows how even a col­lege-age Clin­ton was able to think on her feet and jump on the mo­ment — a key as­set in a de­bate.

Clin­ton also showed, and has honed for years, a propen­sity to en­gage the other side, to ar­gue and coun­ter­ar­gue like a lawyer, Jamieson says — not sur­pris­ing, since her next stop af­ter Welles­ley was a law de­gree at Yale.

But along with those and other ob­vi­ous strengths — such as the depth of her prepa­ra­tion — Clin­ton can sound scripted, es­pe­cially in con­trast to her hus­band, a gifted em­pathizer. “‘I feel your pain’ — that was a joke line about Bill Clin­ton, but some peo­ple have to work harder at it than oth­ers,” Jamieson says. “It was more nat­u­ral for Ron­ald Rea­gan and Bill Clin­ton than it is for Hil­lary Clin­ton.”

She’s also known to be guarded. “Peo­ple who sup­port her say she is thought­ful,” says Jamieson. “Those who op­pose her say she is hid­ing some­thing. But she adds that there’s good his­tor­i­cal rea­son for Clin­ton to watch her words.

“She’s been burned by state­ments that were taken to mean some­thing she didn’t nec­es­sar­ily in­tend, like her fa­mous 1992 ‘cook­ies and teas’ re­mark,” which Jamieson says was “taken egre­giously out of con­text.”

Then, of course, there’s the per­sis­tent de­scrip­tion of Clin­ton “lec­tur­ing” — or worse, “yelling.” Many counter that this par­tic­u­lar de­scrip­tion is in­ex­tri­ca­bly wound up in gen­der per­cep­tions. (One com­men­ta­tor, Mark Ru­dov, said on Fox News in 2008 that when can­di­date Obama spoke, “Men hear, ‘Take off for the fu­ture,’ and when Hil­lary Clin­ton speaks, men hear, ‘Take out the garbage.’’’)

“I don’t think one can talk about any­thing re­lated to Hil­lary Clin­ton where gen­der is not (a fac­tor), whether it’s con­scious or not,” says Deb­o­rah Tan­nen, pro­fes­sor of lin­guis­tics at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity.

“What you con­stantly hear about is her yelling,” Tan­nen says. “But of course, can­di­dates all yell. They have to.” That fa­mous 2004 Howard Dean yell was a rare oc­ca­sion when a male can­di­date was called out for it, she notes.

Tan­nen says Clin­ton — like other women in au­thor­ity — is sub­ject to a “dou­ble bind,” mean­ing what­ever she does is go­ing to vi­o­late ei­ther ex­pec­ta­tions for how a woman should speak, or how a leader should.

In other words, for a fe­male can­di­date, ap­pear­ing tough and em­pa­thetic at the same time is a chal­lenge. Biog­ra­pher Gail Sheehy says that dur­ing Clin­ton’s 2008 pres­i­den­tial race, her cam­paign em­pha­sized the tough­ness, so that she would be taken se­ri­ously — es­pe­cially by the mil­i­tary — as a po­ten­tial com­man­der in chief.

“She won that bat­tle,” Sheehy says, “but in the process it ob­scured her nur­tur­ing qual­i­ties — her abil­ity to un­der­stand and re­late to peo­ple who are vul­ner­a­ble. We’ve seen that abil­ity in her ac­tions through­out her whole life — but even to­day she has a hard time con­vey­ing it.”

One of Clin­ton’s most ad­mired mo­ments as a pub­lic speaker came in 1995, when, as first lady, she ad­dressed the U.N. World Con­fer­ence on Women in Beijing and made the pow­er­ful dec­la­ra­tion that “hu­man rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are hu­man rights.” But Sheehy also points to a very dif­fer­ent mo­ment as mem­o­rable for Clin­ton — the 2008 “cof­fee shop mo­ment” in New Hamp­shire, where Clin­ton’s voice shook and she seemed near tears as she spoke of her goals for the coun­try.

“She al­lowed her­self to show a lit­tle vul­ner­a­bil­ity — in spite of her­self — and wow, women all over the place re­lated to her,” Sheehy says. “The prob­lem is that to­day, there isn’t very much ‘we’ in the way she speaks. We don’t feel like she’s hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with us.” In the de­bates, Sheehy sug­gests, Clin­ton might do well to in­ject some hu­mor where she can, to por­tray ac­ces­si­bil­ity.

Some feel Clin­ton shouldn’t have to be wor­ry­ing about that at all.

Why, won­ders fem­i­nist blog­ger Andi Zeisler, isn’t it enough for Clin­ton sim­ply to show her qual­i­fi­ca­tions for the job? When did it be­come, she asks, about be­ing the can­di­date you can have a beer with — or who can dance with Ellen DeGeneres on her talk show?

“That’s not the per­son I want to see, and that’s cer­tainly not who she wants to be,” Zeisler says. “I think she’s from a time when you weren’t SUP­POSED to have a beer with your pres­i­dent. They were sup­posed to be too busy and too smart.”


First lady Hil­lary Clin­ton ad­dresses a spe­cial ses­sion of the Fourth World Con­fer­ence on Women in Beijing on Sept. 5, 1995. Clin­ton de­clared, “hu­man rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are hu­man rights,” and said that it was in­de­fen­si­ble that many women who reg­is­tered for the con­fer­ence were de­nied visas or were un­able to fully par­tic­i­pate.

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